Thursday, January 29, 2009

Open Letter to Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall

To: Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall

I was very disappointed when I heard the news about the casting for the live-action adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender. It seems to be very clear that this story takes place in a stylized version of ancient Asia. The characters wear the costumes and practice the customs of ancient Asia, write in Chinese and eat with chopsticks. How did four Caucasians and their families end up there?

Whether the decision to cast this way was artistic or financial, the implicit message you send out with this type of casting is that 1) stories that feature Asian people are not as appealing as those featuring Caucasians 2) Caucasians can play Asians better than Asians can and 3) nobody wants to go into a theater and see movies with Asian faces in it. Even if this is NOT your intent, these are the implicit messages you send out.

And these messages make me feel bad.

I feel bad for every person of Asian descent, who will get the implicit message that even though Asian CULTURE is endlessly fascinating to audiences, Asian PEOPLE are not.

Additionally, I feel bad for a lot of white people and other non-Asian Americans. A majority of them voted a black man into the White House because they wanted change, but now they are being told in so many words that they are narrow-minded and intolerant, and that change is coming no time soon.

I feel bad for every Asian actor, who has surely spent much of his time knocking on doors in Hollywood only to hear, "Sorry, this role was written for a Caucasian, you aren't right for the role." Now, in 2009, he also gets to hear "Sorry, this role was written for an Asian, but we found a Caucasian who was better for the role."

Mostly I feel bad for every Asian child, someone who is surely within the demographic for this film, who will look at this movie and say, "Daddy, look at all the pagodas and Chinese writing and mountains! How come there aren't any Asian people there?"
Perhaps he might be told the "facts" of life: "The people who made this movie believe that if you put Asian people on the movie screen, not many people will want to come."
The kid may ask "why don't many people want to go to movies with Asian people in them?"
"Most of the people in the audience are white, and they only like to see white people, son. Not Asians."
"How come they don't like seeing Asians? I don't mind seeing white people."
"That's just the way it is, son."
"Even all my friends at school and neighbors on our block?"
"I suppose so."

You are successful filmmakers who have earned the right to lead rather than follow.

Do something.

Anson Jew

Sunday, January 25, 2009

No Bull, It's the Year of the Ox

2009. It's a brand new year with a brand new president (Yay!) Over 54% of Americans voted for change, and in 2009, the year of the ox, they will get it. The Ox in the Chinese zodiac symbolizes ambition, tenacity and hard work. A great symbol for change in difficult times.

There are some things, however that NEVER seem to change. One of them is Hollywood's casting practices. Throughout film history, most Asian roles that require any heavy lifting have gone to Caucasians. Background or sidekick roles, small comic relief roles and thug roles go to real Asians. Whether you're talking about Peter Lorre playing Mr. Moto in the 30's, John Wayne playing Ghengis Khan in the 60's, Peter Ustinov playing Charlie Chan in the 80's, or Brian Dennehy playing Kublai Khan in 2007, this is a tradition that seems outlast all of the other cultural advances that have been made in the last century.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is a popular cartoon on the Nickelodeon network. It's setting is clearly a stylized version of ancient Asia. A live action adaptation by Paramount Pictures is set to go into production soon. It will be shot in Asia. Yet not one of the principle roles that have been announced so far have been given to actors of Asian descent. The roles were given to Caucasian actors.

By a large margin, Americans voted in it's first African American president. Yet somehow, the makers of The Last Airbender don't think they can bank on Americans spending their money to see Asian actors playing Asian roles. They still think America wants to see Caucasians playing Asian roles. Isn't it time Hollywood got up to speed?

Although the roles have been announced, they are not set in stone. Contact the producers of this film and let them know how your feel. Go to this website for more information:

It is especially important that non-Asian people get in on this. If the makers of this film see a bunch of letters from people with Asian names, they can easily just write it off, since Asians only represent 4.5% of the American population (and ticket sales). They need to see that their poor casting decisions could have a significant effect on their bottom line. This isn't just an Asian issue, it's a people issue.

Also check out this excellent blog entry by cartoonist Derek Kirk Kim on how he feels about the issue:

I'll be having Dim Sim with some friends at a restaurant near Alhambra in honor of the Chinese New Year. I'll be leaving behind this flyer. Feel free to copy and distribute it.